Each new publisher who takes over the chronically dissipating San Diego Union-Tribune seems to have Charles Foster Kane at the back of their minds.
“I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly," said the "declaration of principles" authored by the not entirely fictitious publisher of 1941's cinematic classic "Citizen Kane" by Orson Wells.
"I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.”
On July 1, 2011, when the Union-Tribune was owned by Beverly Hills billionaire Tom Gores, editor Jeff Light unveiled the paper's own set of "editorial page principles."
Said Light's 2011 pronouncement, posted on his Facebook page: "The Union-Tribune will be independent of any political party and will be devoted to a constructive, pragmatic approach to issues."
Two years before, in March 2009, Gores’s Platinum Equity had acquired the U-T from David Copley, who had presided over the commercial and editorial decline of the enterprise he inherited from his late mother Helen in 2004.
Local hopes for an ethical turnaround were high.
"We believe that communities and their institutions must live within their means, be honest, transparent and accountable, and embrace the maxim that the noblest motive is the public good,” Light’s statement promised.
“We value the diversity of the San Diego-Baja California mega-region, and will promote tolerance and inclusiveness for all.”
Presciently, Light labeled his principles a work in progress.
Less than two weeks later, on July 12, 2011, Gores announced he had hired New York's Evercore Partners to help the newspaper come up with "alternatives for its future.” Four months after that, on November 17, 2011, Gores revealed he was selling the operation to La Jolla real estate magnate and Republican kingpin Douglas Manchester.
Under Manchester's rule, Light and the renamed U-T San Diego tangled frequently with the new publisher's political enemies, especially Nathan Fletcher, a Republican-turned-Democrat who in April 2012 secretely recorded a meeting he attended with the paper's editorial writers, including Light.
The recording caught Light saying Fletcher's presence in the race for mayor was hurting the candidacy of Republican city councilman Carl DeMaio, a longtime political ally and monetary beneficiary of Manchester's.
Light's remarks to Fletcher drew the opprobrium of Point Loma Nazarene University journalism professor Dean Nelson.
“If it was just their editorial page people, that’s one thing,” Nelson told Capital Public Radio. “But this is the person who oversees all of their news coverage. So that’s why I found this particularly disturbing.”
Responded Light on Facebook: "I was just trying to ask Nathan to make a clearer case for the endorsement he was asking for by pointing out, hey, this is a Republican group you are pitching to. There's really no more to it than that."
He continued, "I know it sounds funny, but, believe me, that does not mean that I, Jeff Light, am a Republican.. At that moment on the tape, I was simply expressing the sentiment of the editorial board, of which I am but a part."
Light’s statements were met with raised eyebrows, and when Chicago-based Tribune Publishing took over the U-T this spring, some more Kane-like promises were made.
"Here is the first change," the paper said in a May 23 statement. "At the top of the new editorial board is Publisher and CEO of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Austin Beutner, who is also Publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times. William Osborne, the Union-Tribune's Editorial and Opinion Director since 1999, will report directly to Beutner. This will reinforce the separation of news and opinion coverage at the newspaper."
Added the paper, "The editorial board will be independent of any political party."
By last week, though, according to a July 31 interview of Osborne by U-T Readers' Representative and Local Section Editor Adrian Vore, Beutner was no longer a member of the editorial board, let alone at its top.
"The editorial board consists of editorial writer Chris Reed, community opinion editor Blanca Gonzalez, community outreach editor Andrew Kleske and myself," Osborne was quoted as saying.
"We meet every morning to discuss the news of the day, major issues we know will be coming up soon and any other issue one of us wants to raise."
Continued Osborne, "From these discussions we decide what we want to editorialize about and what we want each editorial to say in substance and in tone."
Beutner's role, as described by Osborne in the interview, is minimal.
"I also consult by email or phone with Publisher Austin Beutner, who is based in Los Angeles, but he does not dictate our positions. His concern is that we ask the right questions, that we frame issues correctly."
The Osborne interview distancing Buetner from the paper's editorial process came five days after the U-T endorsed a controversial killer whale development being mounted by SeaWorld.
The opinion bashed the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals and caused national comment in environmental circles.
As earlier reported, the wealthy Beutner was the youngest partner in Manhattan's Blackstone Group, which after his tenure acquired SeaWorld for $2.7 billion.
Under Manchester's reign, Osborne was no stranger to the paper's long history of Republican editorial intrigue.
A May 28, 2014 U-T endorsement of former GOP Assemblywoman Shirley Horton for the state's Board of Equalization, was followed by a disclaimer.
"The decision to endorse Horton was made by the newspaper’s owners in consultation with some members of the Editorial Board," said the statement. "Editorial and Opinion Editor Bill Osborne, who has a conflict of interest, didn’t participate in this process or in the writing or editing of this editorial."
Details were omitted.